Early in 1932, during the height of the Great Depression, the Rock Island Bridge and Iron Works decided to branch out. They didn’t branch out into steel production, or further engineering services – they decided to go a different route. While the reasoning behind this decision appears to be lost to time, it uncontroversial that they expanded into the realm of stereoscopic photography, trying out a number of different systems until finally settling on the proprietary Tru-Vue viewer that debuted at the summer 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago. By midway through the season, they were selling four rolls from the Fair itself; during the following year, they would add four more.
While Tru-Vue is primarily known for its event and travel images (as well as a handful of “adult-themed” strips), they seemed to be bursting with ideas from the get-go. There was the “Tru-Vues from Everywhere” series, a short-lived concept where subscribers would get one new roll of various 3D photos each month. After six months, this ended. Then there was the advertising industry – and here, they hit gold. By the mid-1930s, dozens of Tru-Vue advertising films had been created – with some obvious choices, such as industry and automotives – and some less obvious ones. This roll is among the latter.
Some three decades and change before the first Tru-Vue roll was produced, the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary laid the cornerstone for a grand building that would become the Villa de Chantal, a replacement for the small school they’d built whilst hastily emigrating from Kentucky to Rock Island to escape an outbreak of consumption. Having been looking for a new region in which to combine their dual missions of serving God and serving women of all ages and backgrounds, they took to Rock Island – and Rock Island took to them. Their first school had been overcrowded within a year, and the Villa de Chantel was constructed to replace it – an exquisite complex that was a NRHP Historic District from 2005 to 2012 – a year after it was demolished.
The Order of the Visitation had been founded by Jane Frances de Chantal, a 17th century baroness who, upon her husband’s death, devoted her life to the Catholic Church. She was canonized into Sainthood in the following century – apparently, martyrdom was no longer a requirement for the honor. As such, the Sisters of the Visitation, or Visitandines, or Salesian Sisters – pick the name you prefer – have a tendency to name their grandest monasteries, schools, etc, after her. The Villa de Chantal was no exception – in naming or in grandeur.
For the newly formed Tru-Vue company, it was a happy coincidence that the Great Depression was hitting the school hard after 30 years of extreme prosperity. During its early years, Villa de Chantal had added numerous wings to the main building, had added auxiliary buildings as needed, and had even rented space in nearby boarding houses when the boarders on the campus outnumbered the beds. But the stock market crash led to a sudden drop in enrollment – and, rather than a sparsity, there was an overabundance of available dormitory space, and too many empty seats in the classrooms.
Like as not, Tru-Vue made the approach to the Sisters; an upscale boarding school ought to have an upscale advertising technique – and for families that could not tour the school in person due to travel costs, why not let them tour it virtually, via stereographic photography? While I have no proof of this, it seems likely that as an early client, located in Tru-Vue’s hometown, the Academy would have received a very attractive deal. And the Salesian Sisters are known for their business acumen and fundraising abilities to this day. I’ll leave you to come up with your best version of the all-too-obvious “match made in Heaven” gag here. So it came to pass that in 1933, the Sisters commissioned two abnormally long filmstrips (at 30 images each), themed “Morning” and “Afternoon”. This is the morning filmstrip – and before we continue on with the verbosity, let’s take a little more of the tour:
By now, you’re probably noticing something – some small errors aside, largely from using a camera that had two lenses offset – these are pretty good, effective stereoviews. And that had to be part of Tru-Vue’s benefit for producing the 60 images on these two rolls. Not only would they receive recompense for working for the Sisters (and possibly into the next life, if you believe in that sort of thing), but now they had proof of concept. They could advertise their advertising reels.
Once again, I have no evidence, but I strongly suspect that they brought in a “ringer” – that is to say, an experienced stereophotographer – to do this series. Each image has nice anchor points; the composition is generally pretty darn good. Besides the double-tap on “Rosary Drive”, there is just the right amount of repetition to get the point across while making the series interesting. And compare the photographic quality of these images to some later, wider-release commercial films Tru-Vue produced, such as Brooklyn Series 1, Brooklyn Series 2, and NYC Chinatown. All three of these – and particularly “Chinatown” – seem to be very amateurish; almost as if some folks from the Rock Island Bridge and Iron Works needed a weekend in New York.
And now, let’s take a peek at some of today’s lessons:
The Academy of the Visitation at the Villa de Chantal seems like quite a lovely place to attend school, does it not? And that’s the brilliance of this marketing strategy. You take a girl’s parents through in person on an average day, and are the students congregating in the halls gossiping, passing notes in class, etc, all going to be as well coiffed and posed as those here? And are any of the lightbulbs going to be on the fritz? Are there smells? Is it too hot? Too cold? Stereoscopic filmstrips, which can be quickly advanced, always show the same predesigned story, the same appealing way, each and every time. And this aspect, I think, moreso than capitalizing on World’s Fairs and such, was Tru-Vue’s true brilliance. The filmstrip format, as opposed to individual stereographs that have to be changed out, is more engaging and exciting. Just like you want your child’s school to be. Presumably. And presumably want a good, well-rounded arts program as well:
For both the Academy at the Villa de Chantal and for Tru-Vue, there are no real happy endings. The Salesian Sisters taught a great many girls over the years, and by account were much kinder and gentler than members of certain other Catholic orders. There are numerous reports online of happy times shared by the girls who walked the halls and studied in the classrooms, but times change. While continuing to provide a complete K-12 education, the school ceased boarding in the late 1950s – boarding was no longer sought out as frequently as in prior times. Attendance was slowly eroded, and in 1975 the school held its final graduation ceremony. Time spent at the Academy is fondly remembered by many who attended.
The Sisters moved on, and the property changed hands a number of times, but never to any notable end – at least not in terms of actual usage. The buildings themselves were designated as landmarks by Rock Island in 1994, and finally listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005. Sadly, that same year, a suspicious fire burned the buildings – which had just changed hands to a new developer – to the ground; all that was left were the shells, the masonry superstructures of the buildings. In 2008, what remained was razed. I’d like to end this on a poetic note, perhaps something about salting the earth or the like, but I hear tell from an acquaintance that visited whilst researching Tru-Vue that the land was hastily reused to build an ugly, super-utilitarian public high school.
Tru-Vue continued producing filmstrips, including many advertising filmstrips, until the early 1950s, when they were bought out by ViewMaster owners Sawyers. After switching over to a new system with a new viewer that displayed color stereo pairs contained within a card, Sawyers eventually discontinued the Tru-Vue line entirely. Very little information remains out there regarding Tru-Vue’s early operations, and with ViewMaster now out of production, nobody seems to know where the Tru-Vue archives are – and many of us have tried. We can only hope that the pioneers were well rewarded for creating a record of the 3D interregnum between the Holmes-style printed cards and the color ViewMaster reels.
So it appears that we’ve reached midday at the Villa da Chantal, and thus we’re mid-way through Tru-Vue’s advertising efforts on behalf of the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary. We still have half a day to go! The second post from this series will contain the remainder of the day, some notes on the condition of these films (including the spots you may have noticed, as well as the strange film base), my own musings on Catholic schooling, and some more personal narratives relating to the Villa. But until then, we bid adieu to this lovely building and its carefully posed inhabitants – I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have.
* Nota Bene: as a former Catholic School
prisoner student, I have earned the right to refer to nuns in their habits as “penguins”. If you don’t get the joke, picture a giant, rather stern and grumpy penguin shaking a disapproving finger at you. Now you get it. If you too survived attended a Catholic school of your very own, feel free to borrow it as well.